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Election Day

Docurama // Unrated // October 27, 2009
List Price: $26.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by David Cornelius | posted December 16, 2009 | E-mail the Author
I had forgotten just how angry the country was on November 2, 2004. Nobody trusted anybody on election day. Party reps stalked the polls with the watchful eye of paranoia, convinced the other side was bound to fudge the results any way they could; others went from precinct to precinct, hunting for irregularities and intimidation. The fear of a Florida 2000 rerun hung in the air like a stench. Nobody seemed to be voting for anyone quite as much as they were voting against the other guy. And the lines. Oh, my, the lines.

The negativity makes the documentary "Election Day" difficult at times to watch, as you're bound to be reminded of all the things that drove you crazy on the day Bush and Kerry went head to head. But the film is also an important time capsule, capturing the mood of the nation from the ground level, distilling national modern history to the smallest local stories.

Documentary filmmaker Katy Chevigny orchestrated twelve film crews spread across the U.S. as they followed an assortment of voters, activists, and candidates throughout the day. The resulting footage is edited together without comment, offering a simple yet highly involving snapshot of our democratic process.

Two stories stand out. The first follows Republican activist Jim Fuchs, who jokes about the loneliness of being a right-winger in Chicago. Serving as poll watcher, Fuchs bounces around his ward eagerly hunting for wrong-doing, convinced those lefties are bound to pull some classic Chicago politics as soon as his back is turned. Fuchs' commitment is admirable, but there's something definitely cringe-worthy about his passive aggressive smarm. In one scene, he asks a rival campaigner to come closer to the polling location, only to chastise him for now standing illegally too close to a polling location. He keeps hunting for ballots that don't work, making a scene out of faulty designs, then accusing the poll workers of trickery once they show him there's no fault.

Later, Fuchs is seen on the phone instructing a colleague how to gain the upper hand verbally against a Democrat - anything to give the appearance to onlookers that he's in the right and the opponent is in the wrong. To Fuchs, appearance is everything, and he knows it. The suggestion of impropriety is more powerful than impropriety itself.

The second stand-out is found in New York, where Leon Botts, an ex-felon, has started a movement to rally other ex-felons to vote for the first time. There's an energy to his activism that cuts to the heart of election day as an unofficial national holiday, even though he must cut through both voter apathy and registry-purging that prevented countless ex-felons from voting.

The rest of the film is mostly anecdotal, stories highlighting struggling families (a couple works alternate factory shifts to help cover their son's medication), admirable community service (activists drive great distances across reservations to ensure Native American turnout), and bureaucratic insanity (residents in a poor St. Louis neighborhood wait hours in line, while miles away in richer, whiter districts, the voting's a no-wait breeze; a woman bounces from polling station to polling station, rejected everywhere she goes). Coverage of an election for county sheriff creates the only true suspense of the film, as we follow supporters for both candidates all the way through to the victory rally.

By strictly adhering to the rules of cinéma vérité, Chevigny and her crew leave the interpretations to us. This can frustrate at times, especially at the end, when we're given only the thinnest of follow-ups, and some of the stories get lost in the mix. (The factory-working family plotline offers no resolution; it just is what it is.)

But it also ensures the high emotions that remain connected to that day don't interfere with the storytelling itself; we're on our own when it comes to the stickier notions of voter intimidation and behind-the-scenes complications. Like solid examples of the genre should, "Election Day" asks the viewers to determine their own conclusions.


Video & Audio

The 1.78:1 flat letterbox transfer is decent enough to get by. With the whole thing shot on digital video, the image is clear if not crisp. Grain is mostly absent, and detail is about what you'd expect from such a documentary.

The same goes for the Dolby 2.0 soundtrack, which offers clarity without being impressive. Dialogue is clean, music never interfering. No subtitles are offered.


An interview with Chevigny (8:44; 1.33:1) allows the filmmaker to explain the making-of process, from selecting which subjects to follow to editing the hundred-plus hours of footage together. A text-only bio of Chevigny is also included.

In the "Blaze Foley Tribute Concert" (5:32; 1.78:1 flat letterbox), we get brief footage of the film's post-premiere party at the 2007 South by Southwest festival, honoring the music of Foley, whose song "Election Day" was used in the film's closing credits.

Five deleted scenes (14:29 total; 1.78:1 flat letterbox) offer up a little more from Fuchs, plus anecdotes about electronic voting and attempts to snuff out voter intimidation.

Text-only info on Arts Engine/Big Mouth Films rounds out the disc.

Final Thoughts

Even at its most maddening (you'll want to slap the greasy smarm right out of Fuchs), "Election Day" is fascinating viewing, an imperfect document of an imperfect American day. There's not enough here to demand a purchase, though, so you'll do fine to just Rent It.
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